Moscow/Paris/Beirut, April 11: Syria's foreign minister told Moscow yesterday Damascus had started withdrawing troops in line with Kofi Annan's peace plan but Russia said the regime should implement the initiative more decisively.
The rare visit by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to Moscow coincided with a deadline under the Annan plan for Syria to withdraw forces from protest cities amid Western worries the scheme is in tatters.
"I told my Russian colleague of the steps Syria is taking to show its goodwill for the implementation of the Annan plan," Muallem said after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "We have already withdrawn military units from different Syrian provinces," he said without giving details on locations.
Muallem also said Syria had freed some prisoners who had been arrested for participating in anti-government riots. He added that a ceasefire should begin "simultaneously" with the arrival of international observers, in another apparent diversion from the Annan peace plan championed by the West.
However, France denounced Syria's assurance that its forces were complying with a UN-backed cease-fire deal as a "blatant lie" and urged foreign governments yesterday to challenge Assad's administration.
In scarcely diplomatic language, the French Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “The Syrian foreign minister's statements, affirming an initial implementation of the Annan plan by the Damascus regime, are a fresh expression of this blatant and unacceptable lie.
“They are indicative of a feeling of impunity against which the international community absolutely must react," the spokesman, Bernard Valero, told reporters in Paris.
Citing Syrian sources and satellite images, Valero said “none of the elements” of Annan's plan had been implemented. “There is what the regime’s representatives are saying and then there is the reality," he said. "On average 100 people are dying each day and it continues. “Today, Syrian security forces are still firing on populated areas and using heavy weapons, armored vehicles and helicopters. That's the reality.”
Syrian rebels are committed to the cease-fire, a rebel spokesman said yesterday. Col. Qassem Saad Al-Deen, spokesman of the joint command of the Free Syrian Army inside Syria, said the rebels would fight on if Assad does not pull back his troops and tanks from in and around cities by tomorrow in line with the plan.
Deadly violence yesterday killed 17 people across Syria, including at least seven civilians, on the day the government is expected to pull out from protest hubs as per a UN-Arab League peace plan, monitors said. Six civilians were killed in shelling that hit the old district of Khaldiyeh, in Homs, and another was shot dead in the neighborhood of Bab Tadmur, also in the central city, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Britain-based center said regime forces shot four people in the village of Kfar Zeita, in the central Hama province, where troops loyal to Assad carried out arrests.
The center had reported earlier that unidentified gunmen killed six soldiers in the northeastern province of Hassakeh, in an attack that occurred between the villages of Masaada and Marqada.
It also reported clashes between Assad forces and rebel fighters in the area of Mzeyreeb, in the southern province of Daraa, the cradle of the dissent movement launched a year ago.
Meanwhile, explosions were heard outside Douma, a northern suburb of the capital, the center said.
The Local Coordination Committees, one of the main opposition groups inside Syria, said "large military reinforcements" had arrived overnight on the eastern outskirts of Rastan, in the central province of Homs.
Syria claims troop pullout